How much do you know about the story of Easter? Maybe less than you think. Read on!
Most of us are familiar with the ancient Easter story of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection, especially if we grew up in the Church. But the reality is that the Easter narrative began thousands of years before the death of Jesus. The dramatic lead-up to the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus is quite elaborate and was set in place generations before Rome even existed.
If you turn to Exodus 11-12, you will read the story of Moses liberating the people of Israel from the heavy hand of slavery in Egypt. You may have heard this in Sunday school or on Prince of Egypt. Here how the story basically went: Israel was in slavery in Egypt, so God sent Moses to free them. Moses stood before Pharaoh, the king, and told him to free the slaves. The pharaoh refused until God sent ten plagues to the land. The final plague was the death of all the firstborn sons in Egypt. The only ones who were spared were those who obeyed God by killing a lamb and painting some of its blood on their doorposts. Finally, pharaoh relented and forced the people out of the land. They left while their bread was still without yeast and baked the flat cakes during the journey. God instituted Passover in remembrance of this event. I’ll give more details on the Passover feast below.
Fast-forward a thousand years to the account in Matthew 26:1-30. It’s the year 30 AD in Jerusalem, and crowds of Jews have gathered to their holy city to celebrate the Passover. They will be observing the Passover meal tonight, and tomorrow they will all bring a Passover lamb to sacrifice at the Temple to atone for their sins. The lamb must be perfect, with no broken bones or blemishes. The priest will slaughter the lambs for about six hours, and when the last lamb has been sacrificed, he will say, “It is finished.” It’s a gruesome sight– so much blood will be spilled and many innocent animals lives lost. It’s designed to be that way so that the people will see how awful their wrongdoings are and be thankful that God took the life of the animal in exchange for the life of the sinner.
On this night, Jesus celebrated Passover the same way that the rest of the nation did. He gathered with his closest friends to eat the symbolic flatbread and drink the symbolic wine. And then he taught them that the entire Passover was designed to point the way to himself. He was the final Passover lamb, the perfect one who would die in the place of the sinner. He would be the lamb who wiped away the wrongdoing– not just for a year, but forever.
Jesus and the disciples reclined at the table, first-century style. This Passover meal would come to be known as the Last Supper and be the foundation of the sacrament of Communion or Eucharist. Together, they drank the first cup of wine: the cup of holiness. This cup reminded them that God is holy and He desires holiness from His people. Next, the ceremonial washing of hands began. But Jesus did not simply wash the hands of himself and his friends. He washed their feet, a sign of servanthood. His friends were confused because he was their teacher and leader. Jesus told them that he was setting an example for them. He expected them to also serve one another.
After the washing of hands comes the herbs dipped in salt water. The salt water dripping from the herbs reminds us of the tears of the Israelite slaves and the salty Red Sea that the people passed through to find freedom in a new land. For Christians, it is also reminder of baptism. In fact, the institution of baptism has to do with the story of the Red Sea. Christian baptism is a symbol of leaving the old life of bondage to wrongdoing and passing into a new life of freedom with Jesus.
Next, Jesus took up the flatbread, which is called “Matza.” Traditionally, it is broken into three pieces, representing the Jewish patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But as Jesus broke it, He said, “This is my body, broken for you.” He had been telling them for days now that he would have to die, but they didn’t quite understand yet.
Next Jesus picked up the second cup of wine, the cup of judgement. “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” The old covenant had been dependent on the blood of animals, spilled to atone for wrongdoing. Soon, Jesus would spill his blood on the cross and initiate the new covenant. The new covenant is that Jesus blood, his death, is sufficient to make up for wrongdoing. You don’t need to kill and animal, and you don’t need to do anything to earn right standing with God and entry into Heaven. You only have to trust that Christ’s death is enough.
Jesus began to pass around the cup. Each person dipped their flatbread in the wine and ate. As they did so, Jesus dropped the bombshell: He really was going to die, and one of those at the table would betray him to the authorities and make it happen. They began to question who it was. Judas had already struck a deal to betray Jesus, so he got up and left to finish the job.
The rest of them continued in conversation and Jesus taught the last of his lessons to them. After, they sang a hymn. I imagine that it was the song “Dayenu,” which is sung at every Passover meal. The song talks about how God continually does good things for His people: led them out of Egypt, gave them the Sabbath, gave them the Torah. We can add one more to the list: gave us Jesus.
After the song, Jesus and his disciples left to pray on the Mount of Olives. After an hour or so, Judas returned with a great mob to arrest Jesus. That night, he was tried before the governor and found guiltless. But the governor was pressured by the people to crucify him, so he turned Jesus over to them to die. Jesus was hung at 9:00 am, as soon as the lambs in the Temple began to be slaughtered. At 3:00 pm, when the last lamb was slaughtered, the High Priest said, “it is finished. A few miles away, Jesus felt himelf dying. He cried out, “It is finished!” and exhaled his last breath.
He was buried that night.
Three days later, the tomb was found empty. A few women claimed to have seen him. The governor tried everything he could to find the body. But it was nowhere to be found. More people began to claim to have seen him, and the days continued to go by. The governor gave up looking for the body.
The body was gone.
Jesus had risen from the dead.
He was who he said he was!
And we can have everlasting life because he is the perfect Passover lamb who took away the sins of the world.